‘Death Watch’ or — Passionately Lazy?
Bertrand Tavernier’s ‘Death Watch’ (1980) is a fiercely impressive, prescient, technically audacious, intelligent and beautifully shot movie tackling an incredibly interesting subject. It’s also highly irritating, intentionally annoying, unintentionally laughable, smart-alecky, pretentious, boring, stupid, trite, overly self-aware and grating. I’m not saying I let out a cheer when it finished so I could put on some SpongeBob Squarepants instead but… well, actually that’s exactly what I did to be honest. But what’s it about?
The films concerns Romy Schneider who is dying (it seems she is dying of boredom, possibly because she’s having to appear in this film and has just watched that day’s rushes) in a world where death by disease has been eradicated. This makes her a celebrity and TV channel, NTV, want to film her last days, an offer she refuses.
Hounded by journalists she decides to escape and meets a handsome man played by Harvey Keitel who helps her out. However, we know that Keitel is a reporter working for NTV who has had a camera implanted into his eye that transmits a continuous feed of all he sees, and he is surreptitiously filming Schneider.
So ‘Death Watch’ is about the intrusion of technology and the media, the willful relinquishing of privacy, alienation, the self, identity, power, cybernetics and Max von Sydow popping up at the end of the movie to explain everything in the way that Max von Sydow tended to pop up in movies to explain everything in the 1970s. All sounds very interesting. So why was I bored?
Possibly because of Tavernier’s directorial decision to have the actors deliver ALL their lines in a deliberately… stilted… manner. Every sentence is followed by a carefully timed and uniform pause, almost as though the script is blinking between lines. It’s meant to increase the sensation of alienation but is also inadvertently silly and annoying.
It is also utilised to create a distancing effect between viewer and film but it worked so successfully with me at that aim that it distanced me right out of the movie and I had trouble trying to scramble my way back in. By the time some emotional engagement did kick in it was too late as I was bored. How bored? Well, I started wondering if Tavernier had ever been influenced by the work of Gerald Thomas so began looking out for possible signs of that (the answer is I found none). You know, that sort of idle shit.
And it’s a shame because there’s some seriously impressive stuff going on here, nearly all of it to do with the camerawork along with some stunning compositions. There’s a genuinely gobsmacking long take where the camera follows Robbie Coltrane as he frantically attempts to track down Romy Schneider by the banks of the Clyde (the film was shot in Glasgow in 1979 as Tavernier felt it had a post-apocalyptic look) that’s then followed by some inspired shots of tankers, ships, cranes, dockyards that’s up there with Antonioni in terms of modern alienation through industry through spectacular imagery.
Indeed, it’s worth watching ‘Death Watch’ for the camera work alone as it is both technically and aesthetically gorgeous. It’s just a shame the script often felt like it was written by a precocious eleven year old who’s just watched an episode of ‘Black Mirror’ and has just learned what the term “allegory” means.
I’m maybe being a bit hard on ‘Death Watch’ but I’d be lying through my teeth if I didn’t admit I had trouble clicking with it or that I was certainly laughing at it way more than with it (the answer is, again, none). I think it’s the movie’s rabid self-importance that irritated me the most. That and the script… and the line deliveries. Oh, and the music is needlessly overwrought too so THAT didn’t help either.
An interesting, fleetingly successful, ultimately daft, borderline tedious curio for fans of sci-fi movies where the sci-fi elements are dialed back as far as possible along with most of the entertainment value as well. A lot of effort, skill and work has been put into this film but the overall vibe of the film was for me, like von Sydow’s character, passionately lazy.
Worth it for the cinematography of Glasgow and some spectacular footage of some big boats.